Water rights crucial to ‘headwaters’ economies
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado – With most of the state’s water on the Western Slope, and most of the state’s population along the Front Range, the struggle for water remains one of the great dilemmas in Colorado.There are six so-called headwaters counties in Colorado – Routt, Grand, Eagle, Summit, Pitkin and Gunnison – and a recent report commissioned by the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments is trying to prove why more transmountain water diversions to the east would have serious economic consequences felt across most of the state.The report, “Water and Its Relationship to the Economies of the Headwaters Counties,” offers a different prospective than some mainstream arguments that claim transmountain diversions aren’t such a big deal. The headwaters counties argue that diversions are a very big deal.The environmental consequences of pumping Western Slope water to the east include everything from lower streamflows and increased water temperatures to degradation in water quality and clarity, compromised aquatic environments and the health of fish, according to the report. But it’s the economic consequences that are often overlooked, the report says.Pumping water to the east could lose important designations for headwaters rivers such as Gold Medal fishing status or Wild and Scenic River status. Diversions could mean less reliable streamflows for kayaking and rafting, the report says, or devaluation of real estate.Streamflows in local rivers are part of the local economy, said Linn Brooks, general manager of the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District. The report, she said, is raising the awareness of just how important the rivers are for the overall state economy.”Without a good, healthy river system with all its components – habitat, clearness, flows – without that, Colorado as a whole loses out,” Brooks said. “Because if we don’t have ski resorts and fishing and hunting and all the things that people come to the Western Slope for, a lot of people won’t come to Colorado at all.”Anglers, for example, might do most of their fishing in headwaters counties, but the impact is felt statewide. The report says that headwaters counties capture 14 percent of the total positive economic impact from anglers, while the Front Range captures 57 percent because anglers spend so much on transportation and equipment there. Water attorney Glenn Porzak said the report is countering the thought that the East Slope should primarily focus on transmountain diversions to meet future water demands.Eagle County has been successful in protecting its headwaters from heading east, Porzak said. In an agreement made a few years ago, the city of Denver can’t seek new water rights in Eagle County without the permission of the local stakeholders – Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority, Eagle County and Vail Resorts.Diane Johnson, spokeswoman for the Eagle River Water & Sanitation District, said without the deal, which got Denver to also abandon water rights, Gore Creek would have almost dried up.The report talks of already threatened or compromised environmental conditions, such as the Eagle River’s “most endangered” designation by American Rivers in 2010, as well as diversion projects that have triggered “substantial environmental compromises.” The report says that diversion projects that have not created major environmental consequences have only avoided such consequences because of water rights or instream minimum requirements. The report points out that the Front Range also promotes the high country’s natural environment in its marketing to businesses and high income and high value workers. Brooks said she finds it amazing that the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce shows a photo of the Vail gondola on the home page of its “live and work” section on its website. She said it’s a “poignant example” of how important the headwaters economies are to the overall state economy. “Without these pristine environments, promoting Colorado would be like promoting many Midwestern states that have no comparable assets,” the report said.
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